Sunday, 13 November 2011

MegaDrive Shmups #6

Hellfire (1990)
By: Toaplan / NCS Genre: Shooting Players: 1 Difficulty: Medium-Hard
Featured Version: Sega MegaDrive / Genesis First Day Score: 3,959,060
Also Available For: Arcade, PC Engine CD

Eeek, even the title screen is all fiery!
If you're a regular reader here at Red Parsley you may have noticed that I have a fondness for retro shoot 'em ups. Before starting my humble blog I had played comparatively few but many of those that I had played remained among my favourite games of all-time. Some of these were by the awesome Toaplan who were founded as a subcontractor of the great Taito before releasing their first game in 1984. They lasted almost exactly ten years and a majority of the games they released during that time were shmups, most of which went on to be regarded as classics. My discovery of one in particular can, like so many others, be attributed to the enthusiastic coverage in the pages of Mean Machines magazine. The game in question is also arguably one of Toaplan's most underrated games - the splendidly named Hellfire - which is also my personal favourite.

The first stage and the bullets are already flying...
It's not a game with a particularly imaginative back-story though. The action is set in the year 2998 - a time when mankind has somehow managed to survive and advance far enough to create various colonies through space where we now live in peace. That is until the evil 'Guild of The Ultra Mech' shows up and starts smacking us around. The only hope for our 'Great Federation' is the advanced 'Lancer' spacecraft and your piloting skills! Eeeek! Despite the lame set-up, seeing off the Guild is not an easy task. Unlike many of Toaplan's games, Hellfire is a horizontally-scrolling affair taking place over six long stages which are each a little over one screen high. The start of the game sees you being launched from some sort of mothership as the pilot of the Lancer attack fighter, and it's equipped with some unique weaponry.

The first mid-level boss - hit the guns on each side...
It's possible, you see, to switch between a standard forward-firing shot, a rear-firing shot, a vertical shot (which allows you to shoot directly above and below your ship), and a four-way shot (which shoots in four diagonal directions simultaneously at slightly decreased power). For ease of play, as well as aesthetic purposes presumably, these are coloured red, yellow, green, and blue respectively. Although there are no extra weapons available for the Lancer (besides a limited number of smart-bomb style attacks), you can increase the size and power of these shots significantly by collecting the power-ups that are produced upon the destruction of certain enemies. As well as these weapon power-ups, there's a number of other helpful items to keep your eyes open for too.

Near the start of the second stage...
The standard speed-up can be collected several times and there's also a super-handy one-hit shield as well as an autonomous drone which doesn't pack all that much power but it does home-in on and attack enemies for you! Bonus icons also appear that award you with extra points which gradually increase the more of them you pick up in succession, and then there's the aforementioned smart bombs. These 'Hellfire' blasts clear the screen of all small-to-medium sized enemy spacecraft and guns, cause damage to any middle or end of level boss, and, most importantly, clear the screen of all enemy bullets including those fired by bosses (of which there are many). Luckily, more of these can be collected as well and you'll need them, and all of the power-ups, if you're to stand any chance of cleansing all six stages of alien filth!

Spooky brains in glass jars on stage three...
While most of the stages feature a mid-level boss, or even two, all of them are concluded by the more common end-level boss, but they aren't just the sort that require mindless blasting to see off. Most of them have a weak spot and move around the screen forcing you to do the same, not only to avoid their attacks but also to try and hit their weak spot. Obviously, this, along with the Lancers unique weaponry, injects a good slice of tactics into the gameplay which certainly makes for some interesting battles, and you'll lose many more lives on the bosses than the actual levels, to begin with at least. The levels are all different colonies of the Federation under attack by the horrifying Guild and they are all divided into several sections which means they're fairly varied in their appearance.

A Hellfire blast in action...
The first stage, for example, starts off in open space but soon moves into a large space station of some sort. The second seems to have a strong Egyptian influence (maybe it's that planet from the Stargate movie!), while the third takes place over a weird landscape with many large red spheres (which appear both in the background and in the foreground, obstructing you), before moving into caverns with sharp rocky outcrops, strange bouncy creatures, and numerous other things (this is probably the best level). The fourth stage features a forest with large walking devices that fire many missiles, and watery areas from which evil killer fish emerge. The fifth stage appears to be set in an alien base featuring many guns turrets, presumably the Guild's base of operations, before the sixth and final stage which takes place in open space and features by far the most powerful weapons of the Ultra-Mech hordes, and as 'standard' enemies too!

This is just a normal enemy on the last stage...
Like many Toaplan games, Hellfire is pretty tough going. In fact, until fairly recently it was a game I considered to be one of the hardest shmups around. My subsequent adventures have of course revealed some insanely tougher games that make Hellfire seem like a walk in park but in reality it's still far from that. The enemies are a diverse bunch and include ones that remain more or less stationary in space, others that fly around, and millions of gun emplacements on the level structures. New ones are introduced regularly too and they get ever tougher which goes some way to ensuring that this is a 'one life' game. In other words, when you lose you first ship you'll also lose all its power-ups. Assuming you're not still near the start of the game it'll then be so hard to get its replacement powered-up again that you might as well not even bother trying.

A tricky section on the third stage...
Having said that, there are at least restart points in each stage, but it's still pretty tough going! However, assuming you can handle the pressure of not dying, even once, Hellfire is a pretty damn fine shmup! You might not think so at first though as it's certainly not the flashiest MegaDrive shmup around, although it does improve on the arcade version from the previous year in my opinion. As well as being far more colourful, many of the sprites have been partially or even completely redesigned here and are very varied. Their design is less consistent though. Some look great with superb animation and attention to detail (the green ones in the first screenshot move all around the screen but their guns are always pointed right at you!) while others are a bit weird or even just crap, but they're mostly okay. Some are pretty big though - check out the sweet walkers!

A mountain of flying fish things on stage four...
The backgrounds aren't bad either. The stages scroll nice and smoothly and their backgrounds not only vary from stage to stage but also several times per stage too. The Lancer itself looks nice and the different coloured weapons certainly brighten up the screen! The sounds on offer here are more faithful to the arcade version than the graphics. The sound effects are superb throughout while the music, by Tatsuya Uemura, is more of a mixed bag. Each stage has its own tune and most of them are decent enough without ever being particularly noteworthy, but the first stage is accompanied by one of my favourite game tunes ever! It's a really loud, pounding piece and gets you enormously pumped-up for the soon-to-be-frenetic action, and makes a perfect start to the game. It's just a shame the other music can't continue the same standard.

That's quite a gun!
Hellfire's strongest point, though, is undoubtedly its gameplay. It's one of those games where I'm not really sure why it's so playable, it just is. I mean, its graphics and sound aren't much better than average (with a couple of exceptions) and there aren't even any different weapon power-ups to collect, so what's it got that so many other shooters haven't? Well, for starters, its weapon system is superb and adds a surprising amount to the game. Each type of shot is of course suitable for specific situations in the game and since enemies attack from all directions, you'll find yourself switching between them often. There are a few other good ideas here and there too which, whilst not necessarily completely original, still feel refreshing. A good example of this can be found when fighting some of the larger enemies and particularly the bosses.

A walker and lots of flying things on stage four...
As mentioned earlier, each stage has at least one boss, and these, unlike some shooters I could mention, have at least had a bit of thought put into them. There's no sitting in one spot and shooting continuously here - genuine skill, specifically quick reflexes and bullet-dodging ability, is required to defeat most of them (though, ironically, not the final boss who is easy!). Collision detection is also top-notch - the bullets fly around the screen pretty quickly but if you lose a ship you'll know that it's because it's been hit! These are a few reasons why Hellfire is so playable but I think its secret lies in the fact that it actually makes you use your brain a little - something very rare for a 2D shooter! There are many games of this type where you have to do very little once your ship is powered-up but Hellfire is different. It forces you to be on the move nearly constantly and is all the better for it.

That green dude looks nasty...
Amazingly, on Toaplan's own website this game is described as "not quite matching the quality of many other Toaplan games". While it's true that Toaplan's shooters are all (or nearly all) of at least good quality, it's still rather surprising to read that! It's possible that the comment may have been in reference to the arcade version which, while still very playable, looks worse than this conversion and is noticeably harder. That doesn't mean that it's a poor game though by any means, and remains among Toaplan's best if you ask me. This version, while unfortunately devoid of the decent simultaneous two-player mode that the arcade game boasted, is still one of the top five shooters available for the MegaDrive. After all, it may not be the kind of game you'd use to show off your MegaDrive's graphical power, but gameplay is what matters, right? Well, that's certainly my opinion and Hellfire, while still a tough and perhaps unfair game, has that in abundance.

RKS Score: 9/10


  1. OK, you'll laugh (or worse) upon hearing this, I'm sure, but I'm pretty sure the reason I avoided playing this game back in the day is that I didn't like the design of the ship. It looks too big and clunky and kind of ... cheap? I still think that, to tell you the truth, but I *really* like how the rest of it looks. So, I'm going to give it a try thanks to your rather glowing review. Hey, you recently converted me into a Chack'n Pop fan, so who is to say you won't convert me into a Hallfire fan, too? :)

  2. I hope so Bryan! :) I agree, the ship is quite bulky but it didn't cause me any problems really. It's not so big to start with anyway so you could just not collect the power-ups if you want to keep it small. Might make the game a bit trickier though ;)

  3. I love Hellfire. It is pretty much the only game for my Mega Drive that I play regularly (I only have about 20 games for it though). Like you, I`m not so sure why it is so playable, but am confident that it is! I`ve especially come to love it ever since I got my extra controller with the auto fire feature.....oh that does work well with this game!

    Bryan is right though, the ship is kind of clunky looking. :)

  4. Haha, yeah, I always had an Arcade Power Stick for my MD so I suppose I took auto fire for granted :P It's a fab game though. Could you ever finish it?

  5. LOL, yeah!

    I haven`t been able to finish it yet, but I`ve made pretty good progress a couple times. How about you? I`m not actually sure how close to the finish I`ve gone! I just love it when you really start racking up the points when all those bonus things become worth 10,000 each;) Probably the most satisfying feeling in any video game!

  6. Yeah, it's a great shmup for high-scores and the sound effect when you collect them is awesome! :P I never completed it legitimately but I went through the game on all difficulties via emulation. The 'hard' mode isn't actually all that much harder, believe it or not. I always used to get stuck on the fifth stage all those years ago but the final stage isn't too bad :)